|One Meridian Plaza Fire
February 23, 1991
One Meridian Plaza was a 38-story (492 ft. tall) building located between Market and Ranstead Streets on South 15th Street in Center City Philadelphia, across the street from City Hall. It was built in 1971 and 1972, before fire codes required sprinklers throughout the building. On February 23, 1991, a contractor doing some work in the building left some linseed oil soaked rags on the 22nd floor, which was vacant at the time. The rags spontaneously ignited and started a fire in the building. The fire eventually spread and activated a fire alarm at 10:23 p.m. The security guards receiving the alarm went to investigate its source. Meanwhile the alarm company, which monitored the alarm, called the building to report the alarm. The guards confirmed that there was fire on the 22nd floor, and they called the alarm company to confirm it before evacuating the building. It was a passing motorist who saw the fire and called the fire department at 10:27 p.m., during which call the alarm company also called to report the fire. The fire had by then shorted out the building's electrical system and the backup generator for emergency lighting failed. The fire department arrived and secured the scene. They were forced to operate in darkness within the building, using portable and hand-held lighting. A command post was set up in the lobby and on the 20th floor. Because there was no electricity to operate the elevators, all firefighters had to access the upper floors of the building by climbing the stairs. Heavy fire was found on the 22nd floor. Windows were shattering from the heat of the fire and glass was falling to the streets below. There was also concern that the exterior granite panels would also fall. The firefighters couldn't gain access to the 20th floor from the stairway because the doors were locked. Water was sprayed on the fire from a small window in the door while a truck company forced open the door. The standpipes in the building were not set correctly and did not allow enough water flow for proper operation of the nozzles used on the 1¾-inch hose lines. Three firefighters reported that they were disoriented on the 30th floor and running out of breathing air. They were allowed to break a window as an emergency measure. A eight-person search team was sent to find them. The search team did not find them on the 30th floor and, as their air was also running out, they went to the 38th floor to look for an access to the roof. A search team from a helicopter that landed on the roof found and rescued them. The helicopter eventually saw the broken window the three firefighters made and directed another search team to the 28th floor, where after about three hours, the firefighters were found. They were taken to the 20th floor, but pronounced dead. Meanwhile, the fire had been spreading to the floors above the 22nd floor. The fire department couldn't get adequate water pressure to fight it. Around 2:15 a.m., they started manually rolling 5-inch supply hose up the stairways. Three such lines were run, with the third line being completed by 5 a.m. During that time a sprinkler contractor arrived and manually adjusted the pressure reducing valves on the standpipes to allow proper water pressure. The fire was spreading to the 26th floor by then. Because of concerns of the structure failing and causing a pancake collapse, the building was ordered evacuated at 7 a.m. This was completed by 7:30 a.m. and firefighters could only continue the attack from the exterior. The fire appeared to be under control on the 22nd through 24th floors, but continued to burn unchecked on the 25th and 26th floors at the time. The fire eventually consumed everything to the 30th floor, where it was finally brought under control just after 3 p.m. by automatic sprinklers that had been in stalled there. During the nearly 19 hours of firefighting, approximately 316 personnel operating 51 engine companies, 15 ladder companies, and 11 specialized units, including EMS units, were committed to the 12-alarm incident. The incident was managed by 11 battalion chiefs and 15 additional chief officers under the overall command of the Fire Commissioner. Off-duty personnel were recalled to staff reserve companies to maintain protection for all areas of the city. After the fire, the building stood vacant for years. It was eventually dismantled piece by piece in 1998 and 1999. It was the sixth-tallest building ever to be demolished, and the tallest outside of New York City and Chicago.
The deceased firefighters were Captain David P. Holcombe, age 52, Firefighter Phyllis McAllister, age 43, and Firefighter James A. Chappell, age 29.